AVON PARK - What began as a relief appearance for Daniel Simons ended in an Gatorade bath, as the Red Devils pitcher guided his team to victory over Class 4A LaBelle Thursday night at Charles R. Head Field.
With the Devils trailing 3-0 when he entered the game, Simons pounded the strike zone, fanning nine batters in four innings, as the Devils pulled away for the 9-4 win.
"Daniel came in and settled us down," Avon Park coach Whit Cornell said. "He did exactly what we asked him to do. The game was within reach and he slowed LaBelle down enough for our offense to catch on."
Despite a sluggish start, Avon Park's (14-3) bats came alive in the bottom of the fourth inning. Tyrone Perry led off with a double, and Mykel Gordon plated Perry with another double. Mason Jahna singled to right field to put runners on the corners. Following consecutive outs, J.C. Cobb smashed a pitch over LaBelle's (8-8) center fielder, and used his speed to nab an inside-the-park home run.
Pitching with the lead, Simons struck out the side in the top of the fifth. Avon Park tacked on another run in the bottom of the inning. Alfred Brown and Perry reached on consecutive walks, and Gordon singled to bring Brown home for his second RBI of the game.
The Devils utilized a two-out rally in the bottom of the sixth to explode for four more runs. Avon Park loaded the bases, and Trey Frazier displayed some alert baserunning, scampering home when a LaBelle outfielder bobbled the ball. Gordon took over from there, belting his third and fourth RBIs of the game on a deep single to right field to cap the Devils scoring.
Simons made his first mistake of the game in the top of the seventh, when LaBelle's Jared Miller smashed a pitch over the left field wall. But Simons shrugged off the home run and emphatically shut the door on the Cowboys, striking out the final two batters to clinch the win.
"There were a lot of heads-up plays tonight," Cornell said. "Both at the plate and out on the base paths. It was really good to see our guys come out and stick together even though they were down early."
Cornell, who has tried to instill a sense of unity among his players, said team cohesiveness is one of the greatest intangibles a baseball club can have.
"Some teams will drop when they're down 3-0," he said. "But one of the things we've tried to teach our guys, is that whether the scoreboard is on or not, our fans shouldn't know the score unless they ask one of our players. We want our attitude, our body language, our demeanor - to always show that we're working together with a good attitude."
Avon Park wraps up its Class 4A-District 10 schedule Tuesday, when the Devils travel to Mulberry (9-13) for a showdown against the Panthers. Avon Park will be looking to sweep Mulberry in the regular season after beating the Panthers 15-4 at Head Field earlier this year. A win at the Phosphate Bowl also secures Avon Park the No. 1 seed for the district tournament.
And while most coaches would say beating a non-district team like LaBelle is somewhat meaningless when their team is in first place in the district standings, Cornell said that playing quality teams is always important.
"LaBelle is always a good test," he said. "It's a similar sized school with a solid baseball program, and they made the playoffs last year. The Cowboys play tough, out of county opponents, and they've got a great coach in Ron Dunbar."
"In high school baseball, we're not trying to overlook anybody," Cornell added.
The Devils will host this year's tournament, which will run from April 21-25.